Sour Power

How Germans are taking back sauerkraut

Homemade sauerkraut with cumin in a glass jar
Proud to be Kraut. Source: Fotolia

As the turn of the year approaches, revelers are putting aside the roasts, sugar cookies and booze to focus on becoming brighter, healthier and happier in their New Year’s resolutions. Along with fitness gadgets and gym memberships, that puts a focus on fruit and vegetables.

Increasingly, that also includes foods high in probiotics and antioxidants such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi and miso, all of which are fermented. The art of allowing microorganisms to change our food is in fashion again, with celebrity supporters including the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ryan Seacrest. Research shows the gut biome affects everything from metabolic diseases to mental health and home-fermented food is packed with the good stuff. Bestsellers from “Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ” to “Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Children from an Oversanitized World,” about the workings of the intestines, have only increased the popular focus of a bellyful of good bacteria.

Sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, is now enjoying a renaissance in the country where it was born thanks to cookery writer Cathrin Brandes. Calling herself the “Kraut Braut,” which translates to “the Kraut Bride,” she is helping a new generation of Germans learn how to make their national dish. Germany lost its taste for it, despite being known as “krauts” for more than a century, and celebrated as sauerkraut eaters in literary works by Jules Verne and Heinrich Heine.

Sauerkraut and pork is a traditional New Year’s Eve dish in Germany, thought to bring luck in the coming year because pigs can only look forward. The tradition carried over with German immigrants to the New World, and it thrives especially in the Midwest.

Berlin-based Ms. Brandes got her first dose of probiotic awareness from American “fermentation revivalist” Sandor Katz, an American feted as the King of Kraut and a “rockstar of the food scene.” After being diagnosed with HIV, Mr. Katz was determined to live as healthily as possible. “Fermentation is a form of pre-digestion that transforms foods nutritionally and can improve them by breaking down toxins and adding nutrients,” he explains. His two bestsellers brought the wonders of sauerkraut to the attention of millions of Americans.

“Microbes are your friends.”

Cathrin Brandes, cookbook writer

“I was mad,” Ms. Brandes told Handelsblatt Global as she watched the resurgence of the fermented dish in the US. “We’re the land of sauerkraut, after all.” But like many in her generation, she hadn’t learned the culinary tradition growing up. “Everyone wanted to be emancipated. They thought being a housewife was boring.” So she started research by asking her grandmother, who first told her not to bother.

Mr. Katz initially started making sauerkraut because all of the cabbages on his Tennessee farm were ready at the same time; Ms. Brandes’ grandmother recalled the same. “In the countryside where my Oma grew up, everybody made barrels of it.”

Numerous food scandals in Germany in recent years, from horse meat labeled as beef to tainted eggs, have only increased the local desire for homemade regional products. Ms. Brandes said millennials and even older folks now flock to her courses, “though kids in the country do think it’s a bit uncool.”

Berliners attend classes and workshops on how to bundle sauerkraut into strudels, soak it in spices or confine it safely to jars. Julia Hammond, a German native who grew up eating sauerkraut but learned to make it in San Francisco, runs three classes a week. They’re widely attended by Americans, Brits, Portuguese and Germans too. One participant was “terrified his would explode” but delighted in the results.

Sauerkraut is just the start for fans of fermentation. Ms. Brandes has tried fermented grasshoppers; her cookbook features fermented green strawberries, fermented raspberry jam and black salsify. She also makes cheese, sour cream butter, jams and sourdough bread and can’t get enough kimchi, the Korean fermented cabbage dish seasoned with garlic, ginger and chili.

It’s easy, the cooks agree, saying the stinky experimenting and funky tastes are all worth it. Fermented foods really do prevent sickness, though Ms. Brandes underlines the uselessness of industrially made sauerkraut. “It’s pasteurized, so it’s a dead product.” What counts are the millions of microbes. “They’re your friends.”

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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